News headlines such as ‘One Militant killed in an encounter’ or ‘Militant shot dead’ are not uncommon in the North-Eastern states. But the news that carried the death of a surrendered HNLC rebel leader, Mr. Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, who was killed in an alleged encounter with Meghalaya Police at his Mawlai residence on ‘Friday the 13th’ of August, caused unrest in the otherwise peaceful city of Shillong.

A day after India celebrated its 75th year of Independence, the people of Meghalaya witnessed something extraordinary. Hundreds of people from Mawlai in Shillong shouted ‘long live HNLC’ as the mortal remains of Mr. Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, the former General Secretary of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), were taken to be laid to rest.

Reportedly, the slain ex-militant occasionally served as a mediator between the government and the HNLC, a banned militant outfit that claims to represent the cause of Khasi-Jaintia people and aims to free Meghalaya from the clutches of ‘outsiders.’ This incident of people openly supporting the militants and chanting pro-militant slogans at Mawlai, Shillong, must be a first not just in the state of Meghalaya but the entire Northeast, at least in recent times.

File image of Cherishterfield Thangkhiew (right)

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“Every time my friends from mainland India asked me a place to visit in North East India, ‘Shillong’ would usually be my answer without even a second of pause. ‘Meghalaya is not only beautiful but one of the most peaceful states in North East India,’ I’d on the whole opined,” a Twitter user wrote. Most people have the same idea about Shillong – different from other NE states like Nagaland and Manipur, which are still categorised as disturbed areas and have long-pending militancy issues to deal with, albeit in a much-improved environment. They must be wondering now, ‘What has happened to Shillong?’

The Meghalaya government is initiating a judicial inquiry into the incident to probe whether the former rebel leader was killed in a fake encounter, as alleged by the deceased’s family, or in self-defense, according to the police’s version. It matters little as to whose version is true. What matters is the death of a person in the hands of people who are supposed to protect. Since the matter is now sub-judicial, it will be in the best interest to let the concerned people do their task.

However, going even by their version that the person killed had a knife with him, the Meghalaya police will have to come up with an extraordinary explanation as to why ‘killing’ was considered the only option available for self defense. 

What is worrying in Mr. Cherishterfield’s case is the manifestation of how the public has so little faith in the government and the rebirth of public sympathy for militants. That an incident of bomb blast a few days earlier had many people fuming and even cursing the development – of the emergence of militancy issue in the state again after decades of peace. A few people, however, dismissed the incident as a desperate attempt by some organisation to proclaim their existence and that nothing serious should be attached to the incident. All in all, the public was unsympathetic, if not wary of militants in Shillong and Meghalaya as a whole. And all that changed overnight with the death of Mr. Cherishterfield

While there are understandable concerns of civilians being subjected to hardships due to restrictions on account of the pandemic and the curfew and internet shutdown imposed upon them, the move to prevent public unrest does temporarily provide some respite. The Meghalaya government appears to have done its best to manage the mess it found itself in. The urgent formation of a committee comprising CSOs, student leaders, headmen, and various stakeholders is a commendable step; there were sufficient pieces of evidence that indicate that the much volatile situation could develop into a serious law and order issue. 

File image of a police vehicle that was vandalised by miscreants in Shillong

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 That Mawlai Headmen refused to participate in the peace committee until the police personnel involved in the killing of the ex-rebel leader were suspended. Their resolve to govern on their own is worrisome. More unfortunate than the decision to excommunicate the government itself is the prevalence of such an environment that warranted such development. As opined by many people, the best thing would have been for the Meghalaya police to not kill Cherishterfield but since that is now not possible, the government should avoid covering it up with another mistake — denying the family and people of Meghalaya the whole truth of what happened. 

The Meghalaya government could salvage some faith by sincerely co-operating with the judicial inquiry, revamping its policies on policing and involving CSOs to find an amicable solution. Another area the government should relook is the chain of command in the home ministry, where the concerned minister itself is allegedly not taken into confidence for the operation on that fateful night. And if reports of the HNLC withdrawing from peace talks post the Cherishterfield killing are true, it will take sincere commitment on the part of the government to find ways to regain its lost image as being a trustworthy authority. In the effort to re-establish Shillong to its original name and fame as an educational and tourist hotspot that routinely attracts thousands of people from far and wide, the most important step would be to ensure that peace and tranquility bloom once again in the Scotland of East. 

TS Haokip is a freelance writer and author. Views expressed are personal.

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